Thursday, 16 October 2008


It had been a while since I'd been to Arran.
We'd been pretty stressed at work and decided it was time to get away for a couple of days (amazing how a weekend there feels like a week!)
We were just strolling over the brow of the hill at Kings Cross when we saw the beginnings of a rainbow over Holy Isle. We thought that if we waited it might just get bigger and brighter...fifteen mins later there it was in all its glory! I had to climb on his shoulders to get the right angle - and the dog was going mental by his feet - but it was worth it.
This to me sums up a perfect day in Arran.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

The beautiful north

"There's life north of Inverness?"
The author of this quote shall remain nameless - though I will tell you he's a subsciber to the 'nowt north of the Watford gap' school of thought - but he highlights a common belief.
In a way I shouldn't even be writing this, because a huge part of Ross-shire's charm is it's lack of crowds, especially in January. But I had to share because the wild beauty of the area is breath-taking.

On a recent business trip, I drove from Inverness to Lochcarron - approximately 62 miles. The kind of landscape that makes me feel a deep-seated love in my Scottish heart accompanied me all the way. I was in a bit of a hurry or I would have happily stopped every three minutes to take pictures of deserted, heather-covered hills, the mist hovering over a still loch or the rays of sunshine that pierced the clouds and made the trees glow green. I felt a stab of jealousy every time I spotted a cottage or farm nestled between the hills - what an idyllic place to spend your life.

Lochcarron itself is a lovely wee town lined up face to face with the loch. Its population is mostly made up of elderly people - until the tourist season - so the pace of life is leisurely. My business took me to the local convenience store, a lovely family- run place which has been rewarded by trade bodies and manufacturers for its quiet yet efficient service for the locals. It's admirable how broad a range they manage to stock given certain suppliers' reluctance to travel to their corner of the world, and customers can find rare treats as the seasons progress - Scottish berried, fresh eggs - all accompanied by the teasing scent of freshly baked bread...


Wednesday, 23 January 2008


Arran is overseas - technically - and that's a huge part of the charm.

After a tough working week, the relief of stepping onto the ferry is instant. You can almost see the stress dissipate in the wake. Even the duration is ideal; 55 minutes is exactly how long it takes to wind down, hit neutral, then gear up for the weekend.

Every time I visit the island it's a different experience. The weather doesn't hamper any activity and whether I'm with just my husband or my whole extended family and friends, there's always some new walk to explore, new tearoom to try or adventure sport to attempt.

A particular favourite is the Eden Lodge Hotel in Whiting Bay.

It's always busy and yet there's always room. The food is simple, home-cooked and often locally sourced. I once had smoked mackerel pate whose main ingredient had been swimming happily only a few hours previously. The house wines have the double benefit of being reasonably priced and easy on the palate and there's always some unusual bottle on the gantry which the owner's brought back from her travels (I should know, she's my sister-in-law!) Family prejudice aside, Eden Lodge is a very popular bar-restaurant whose five bedrooms are booked out weeks in advance. It also has the advantage of staying open throughout the quiet season, unlike many of the island's businesses, and appears in the 2007 Good Beer Guide.

From Whiting Bay it's a short drive over 'the bumps' (if taken at speed your stomach frequently disappears) to Kildonan. The beach there is always inviting but at midsummer it rivals the Canaries in my opinion. White sand and turqouise water attract visitors of all discriptions; the rockpools fascinate the children, the volcanic deposits form prehistoric climbing frames and there is plenty of space for dogs to chase frisbees and men to tend barbecues. Across the shore road a trail has been created to walk up to a waterfall; it's easy going and doesn't take much more than an hour.

There's a reason the island markets itself as 'Scotland in miniature' - if you're not canoeing over to the Holy Isle from Lamlash or cycling the hills of Lochranza, you could be playing any one of the three golf courses, eating freshly caught fish in a restaurant or visiting Brodick castle.

But my personal favourite out of everything the island has to offer is a barbecue at Kings Cross Point, surrounded by half-cut friends and family watching the sun set over the 'sleeping giant' and the boats in Lamlash bay.

Only then am I ready to get back on the ferry and return to reality.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The Anderson

IN the Highland village of Fortrose, close to the crumbling cathedral and a short walk from the shore, foreigners have settled.
At first the villagers were suspicious of the American interlopers.
Rumours abounded that The Anderson –an inn with two bars and a resaurant– might be turned into a Highland-themed pub or a nursing home.
But, four and a half years on, Jim and Anne Anderson are still there. They’ve survived the harsh winters and, with their wide choice of Belgian beers and impressive whisky gantry, have turned The Anderson into an appealing licensed venture for the Black Islanders.
A happy accident
Jim and Anne came across Fortrose by chance, while trying to take a short-cut to Dornoch.
The couple, who originally come from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were searching the Highlands for a small hotel which would give them "an adventure in the second part of life"; they were also keen to escape the States where the social and political climate no longer suited them.
It was their first trip to Scotland, but by the time it was over they had acquired The Anderson, a nine-bed inn with whisky snug, public bar and restaurant.
"It was either brave or foolish," Jim said. "We took over in the middle of dinner – there were people there who started under one owner and finished their coffee under another.
I didn’t even know what the coins were worth!"
Jim admits the upheaval caused by moving from an American city of four million to a Scottish village of 1200 was fairly traumatic, but the dark days, it seems, are now behind them.
"It’s the opposite environment [to America] up here," he said.
"It’s very racially pure, the culture is unchanged and the biggest scandal is the English! I’m starting to twig to the subtleties.
"We were looking to get away from the political and social insanity," he continued.
"The gun culture is out of control – all that stuff you hear, it’s all true and half the stuff you don’t even hear. Certain parts of American culture – the materialism, the war-mongering, the globalisation – they don’t describe us."
It will come as no surprise to learn that it took the couple a while to get used to their new surroundings.
For months they couldn’t understand that the locals were dour, not unhappy. But more quickly they realised that lavish praise was never going to be forthcoming from customers. The ultimate accolade, Jim said, is to learn the Anderson has been recommended to family and friends.
An impressive pedigree
The pair come from a strong hospitality background.
In the States, Jim ran a Belgian beer cafe, organised festivals and even printed a beer magazine; Anne is a trained chef.
In coming to Scotland they hoped to transplant their combined talents to a setting which would give them and their eight year old son a better lifestyle.
"We have built it slowly – what we were was underfinanced foreigners with no idea of the market," he said.
"We had no business contacts. The average life span [of a business] here is five or six years – that should have been a red flag, but we just thought they weren’t trying hard enough! The ball is moving so quickly – you’ve sold your house, the boxes are packed – you’ve got to talk yourself into it. It was blind faith that really kept us going through the first few months."
Blind faith and a hot summer
Jim joked that he can’t maintain a typical Scottish conversation about the weather, but is grateful for the sunny days of 2003 which brought hill walkers, golfers, birdwatchers, and even whale and dolphin enthusiasts to the area, keeping The Anderson ticking over.
What they hadn’t banked on was the impact the winter would have.
Like many remote outlets, The Anderson suffered as trade fell away, and in March they had to dip into their savings to stay afloat.
"We’ve had to work very hard at importing custom," said Jim.
The pub won the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) Pub of the Year for Inverness in 2007 and Jim confirmed the bar’s inclusion in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide has been the best source of business, along with their website,
"We do special nights, two for the price of one for CAMRA members. It’s normally £75 per room for bed and breakfast, so that’s a good deal."
"You need to market your business actively – it’s like voting. If you don’t take part in the process, you have no right to complain."
Jim admits there are still plenty of challenges ahead. He said the business has still to shake off the poor reputation, lingering thanks to its previous owner, and concedes they’re about two years behind on their ten year plan.
But he remains very optimistic about the future.
"The transition was very stressful but now we’ve got it made," he said.

This article first appeared in the Scottish Licensed Trade News.

Saturday, 12 January 2008


It's a rare gift to visit a natural phenomenon that's tourist friendly without being Disney-fied. I expected the falls of Iguazu to be stunning but I had no idea how close I would get or how deeply affected I would be. The magic is still there. I could have been a member of the Guarani tribe creeping through the forest with my spear, instead of a Scot wandering wide-eyed through forest trails, my face wet from the spray.
An adventure from the beginning
Having crossed the continent twice on a bus - the first so dilapidated I wouldn't have been surprised if the next passenger had been carrying chickens - the second the height of luxury because the seats reclined three centimetres - the three Glasgow girls opted to splash out on a plane ticket from Buenos Aires to Iguazu.
Areolineas Argentinas was on strike that day - which didn't come as a huge surprise after several days of rude awakening as to how they do things in Argentina - so we made the best of our wait by swapping cultural tales with a group of Argentinian journalists. The things I learned during that afternoon could fill a whole other post - I'll tell you about it some day.
The plane journey was only an hour and I blagged us a free transfer to our hotel. We instantly met other travellers and took their advice about seeing the falls from Brazil first.
I'll have a Brazilian
From Iguazu town we caught a bus to Brazil - we were very pleased with ourselves and looking forward to another stamp on the passport. Another rude awakening - we drove straight through the border and were unceremoniously dumped by the side of the highway. Some sixth sense guided us to another bus stop where we caught a bus to the falls, otherwise I'm convinced we would have been picked up by a rogue operator and sold into slavery.
Entrance to the national park was a mere 25 pesos and we were bussed again to the start of the trails.
I will never forget turning that corner and seeing the panorama of the falls in front of me.
It's difficult to describe how it makes you feel but I'll try.
Have you ever had a really bad day, when everything has gone wrong, everything has been extra difficult, nothing's worked out and then someone does a really tiny thing for you but it means so much and you suddenly realise life's not so bad?
Seeing the falls makes you realise how wonderful life actually is.
The path leads you closer and closer to the falls, the spray throws up dozens and dozens of rainbows and you half expect a unicorn to come wandering through the trees.
It ends on a platform directly in front of the largest falls, where photos are futile because all you can see is mist.
Cured at last
If we thought the view from Brazil was impressive, we were set to be blown away by the experience in Argentina.
The upper trail leads you along a catwalk which has been ingeniously built across the top of all the falls. To the right you see a wide, murky green, lazy river, to the left the edge of
the world.
Now, I have a confession to make.
I have a waterfall phobia.
When I'm stressed I have nightmares about falling over waterfalls or watching members of my families slipping over the edge, while I watch, powerless to stop them.
And, in the way arachnophobics are forced to hold tarantulas to conquer their fear, I found myself at the edge of The Devil's Throat, staring transfixed into the thundering abyss.
The fence between you and the void is only waist height - you can't see even close to the bottom because of the millions of gallons of water and the heavy spray it throws up. The noise is deafening, the sheer power is awe-inspiring.
I stepped back, tearing my eyes away and felt calm. To this day I have never had another nightmare.
A baptism of water
The lower trail takes you through the forest and out into the lagoon that gracefully receives the avalanche of water dumped into it every second.
Following my spiritual experience at the top, where I made my peace with the Devil's Throat, I felt it was only appropriate to get 'baptised' under the falls.
A speedboat took us round the lagoon and under the spray. We were actually nowhere near the point where the falls hit the water, but got completely soaked nonetheless. Screaming with laughter and shock we got back to the shore to wring out our t-shirts and squelch back up the trail to the welcoming luxury of the Sheraton.
The waiters calmly handed us a couple of towels to sit on, directed us to the groaning buffet tables, laden with every delicacy imaginable and only charged us 20 pesos for the privilege!

There are few things more satisfying than munching chocolate mousse cake in a luxury hotel, gazing out the window at 32 waterfalls where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

First Post

Welcome to Shivering Monkey - bananas about travel!
This wee monkey has been a few places in her life - from the Andean foothills on horseback to the frozen-in-time Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
A charity hike in Peru to reach Machu Picchu - the lost city of the Incas - is next on the list. Meantime I'll tell you about feeling about as significant as an ant at the spectacular Iguazu falls in Argentina, doing Disney in style in Florida and learning to ski in Switzerland.
I might even reveal the club in Barcelona where the hot barmen all strip at 4am...
Join in if you feel inspired to do some monkeying around yourself!